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Preaching Success

A group of small urban churches has shifted its focus to education, partnering with public schools to help African Americans out of the cycle of illiteracy and unemployment.

March 05, 2000|MARY ROURKE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In a church social hall in south Los Angeles, a group of black Christian pastors itemized what they want: political leverage, public funds, housing projects that work. But most important, they want a role for the church in lifting African American students off the lowest rung of public education and a church-based program for adults who need high school equivalency certificates.

At the end of the meeting, Pastor Welton Pleasant invoked Amos, the Old Testament prophet. Most preachers invoke the words to warn of vengeance, but Pleasant turned them into a promise of hope.

"Let justice run down like a mighty stream," he said with unusual gentleness.

Could social justice for African Americans spring from this pink stucco church that looks like a motel? Could the computer lab upstairs be the mighty stream that moves the neighborhood beyond illiteracy and unemployment?

That is the plan in dozens of small, low-income churches across Los Angeles, Compton and Inglewood. After nine years of hard work, 45 pastors have established a network of education programs that reaches into the community and offers help to struggling students, whether or not they attend a church.

At every step, the pastors have faced barriers. There are issues of church and state, resistance from teachers' unions and the challenge of convincing friends as well as enemies that their untested proposal for a partnership with schools can work.

The group, the Los Angeles Metropolitan Churches, known as LAM, sees its mission as a logical extension of the civil rights movement of the '60s. It aims to recapture that era's urgency, which was directed away from education issues once legislation seemed to guarantee equal opportunity.

"We're post-civil rights," said the Rev. Eugene Williams, 39, L.A. Metropolitan's executive director. "The aim now is to work on local, priority issues."

Along with education, L.A. Metropolitan congregations are rehabilitating neighborhood buildings for decent housing, converting abandoned gas stations to new businesses, opening sewing centers that sell basic clothing, and providing low-cost computer services.

The group shies away from naming a founder or a charismatic leader, but clearly the vision for L.A. Metropolitan began with Williams. A former postal workers union organizer turned neighborhood organizer in Philadelphia, Williams came west in 1991 with the dream of bringing together small churches for social change. Now the associate pastor of Mount Olive Second Baptist church in Watts, Williams spent his first two years in Los Angeles forming a leadership team of like-minded pastors who listened to the concerns of their congregations.

Education a Top Priority

Unemployment, prison records for 13% of African American men nationwide and housing made the short list. But education, the engine that can drive African American children out of this cycle, came first.

The L.A. Metropolitan solution is "One Church One School," a program that uses church facilities as learning centers to supplement class work.

The aim is for all 45 churches to open labs where adults and children can learn computer skills. Williams estimated the preliminary costs for L.A. Metropolitan's education programs at just more than $300,000. The Los Angeles Unified School District, he said, has agreed to contribute about half the funds for the adult education program and computer expenses.

L.A. Metropolitan also has created a parent organization that offers them what Williams calls "nontraditional education." Williams wants parents from the churches to be savvy about potential trouble spots in the local public schools, from annual budgets and teacher credentials to academic ratings.

"If 500 parents go into a meeting with school administrators and they're well-prepared, they'll know what questions to ask," he said.

There is no precedent for L.A. Metropolitan's program, a fact that is at once the best and the hardest thing about it. Only 12 of the 45 churches in the organization now have a computer lab and 11 have a tutoring program. Progress has been slowed by limited funds, as well as the need to hard-wire older buildings to accommodate the new technology.

When things do fall into place, however, the response is swift. Ten computers arrived at the Christian Unity Church on South Western Avenue in Los Angeles last summer, and within three months, 35 children and adults had preliminary training in how to use them.

The learning center at South Los Angeles Baptist Church opened in the fall, and by January the church meeting rooms buzzed with the sounds of more than 20 students and their parents practicing reading, drilling math tables and figuring homework on Monday nights.

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